BY ANDREW GARDA
The Montclair High School field hockey team may not have its home field — Watchung Field is still awaiting turf installation — but that didn’t stop it from kicking the season off with a big 7-1 win over Millburn on Thursday, Sept. 9, at Fortunato Field, its home away from home, followed by a second win, over crosstown rival Montclair Kimberley Academy, by a score of 4-0 on Monday, Sept. 13.
Head coach Mary Pat Mercuro, now in her 27th year, said she told her kids all summer the exact same thing she would have at Watchung.
“Inside these gates, this is our oasis,” Mercuro said during a preseason practice. “This is where we can just play field hockey, have fun, be with our friends. It’s what you get out of sports.”
The team has needed that oasis over the last year and a half, as, like most people, the students had to contend with remote learning, COVID-19 and general isolation. The result of that space to just be athletes and friends was a 9-3-1 (2-2-1 Essex/Union-Red) record and a close loss to Millburn in the NJSIAA North East A Tournament semifinal round.
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Which likely spurred the team on just a bit more in its opening match.
This is a very senior-heavy, experienced team, and that was evident on the field Thursday, as six of the players who had a goal and/or an assist were seniors. Phoebe Campbell (2 goals), Julia Magaldi (2 assists), Natalie Snyder (1 goal, 1 assist) and Grace Fitzgerald (1 goal) are all captains, as well as being seniors.
Seniors Olivia Champeau (1 assist) and Sydney Kovel (1 goal) also contributed, as did juniors Meg Previdi (1 assist) and Megan Crane (2 goals). Junior Isabel Ginns got the win in net, with senior goalie Madison Speilberg coming in for some work late.
While the offense definitely showed up with seven goals, the defense also did an excellent job, holding Millburn to four shots compared to MHS’ 25.
“I have a lot of experience in all three areas of the field,” Mercuro said during the preseason. “Then there are some people coming up from [junior varsity] as seniors, and they’re doing a decent job. Seniors want to play, seniors want to be successful. And I have just a great group of underclassmen supporting them.”
Having seniors in large numbers also has helped with the transition to Fortunato from Watchung Field, and ultimately will help in the adjustment to a new Watchung as well.
The turf at Watchung Field was very thin — almost like Astroturf — which the Mounties enjoyed because they were used to the speed of the ball on it. Moving to Fortunato meant dealing with a slower-moving ball, and while it’s a matter of milliseconds, that’s a big difference in a game.
Luckily, MHS’ seniors have played many games on other fields and were already used to the slightly higher turf that Fortunato has. When talking to the captains it was clear that this is a team that had accepted that the change was coming. In fact, they shared that they had been practicing on Fortunato since May.
Both the captains and Mercuro also talked a lot about the sisterhood of the Mounties’ field hockey program.
Former players come back all the time, and current players are always in attendance at the Strokeline Field Hockey Camp that Mercuro runs with Montclair Kimberley Academy coach Injoo Han.
“These kids [had] already gotten together at someone’s house, and it is a sisterhood,” Mercuro said. “We have ‘battle buddies,’ and they’re there for each other.”
For Mercuro, the time with the team has brought a lot of good memories and close ties as well. She has a collection of hats kids have brought her from college visits that gets added to every year. One of her coaches, Rebecca Ferguson, also teaches in town and has been someone she’s known for years.
Mercuro also talks about the pleasure of watching the program grow over the course of her years with it, as well as the growth of the sport overall.
“Things have changed,” she said. “The game has changed, it’s so much better now than when I first started, it’s exciting to watch. It’s more understandable.”
With the help of a robust town youth program, the Mounties have changed as well, which Mercuro pointed out while watching a freshman scrimmage in August.
“Like, this is our freshman team,” she said. “Years ago you would have thought this was the varsity team. This is how much the game has advanced and how having a feeder program is such an asset.”
As always, the team goal is a run in the county and state tournaments, but Montclair has fallen short the last few years. Mercuro wants to change that.
“We haven’t won a section in quite a few years now, and I’d really like to bring Montclair back to where it once was,” she said.
The coach doesn’t feel it’s been any one thing holding MHS back, but a combination of different things both externally and internally at MHS.
“I don’t know what’s blocked us,” she said. “Maybe other programs have stepped up. And remember, our girls soccer program has been outstanding the past couple of years. It’s hard to have two sectional champions in one school, in the same season.”
There are only so many top athletes to go around, of course. This year, though, Mercuro wants that to change, and she thinks the senior class she has can do that.
“We’re going to try and make that happen,” she said. “Hopefully both of us will be sectional champions. This group being senior-heavy, they all want it. They know they won’t get [this year] back. They know we haven’t been able to do it the last couple of years, and they’re focused.”
Mercuro said the team is keying on individual goals as well.
“Getting better every day is one of our goals,” she said. “For each girl, the captains talked about setting goals and putting them on their sticks. They’re really goal-oriented. They’re working hard, and hopefully their legacy is that they set an example for the program.”
Montclair did finally stumble against Oak Knoll on Tuesday, Sept. 14 against an undefeated Oak Knoll team, falling 5-1. Campbell had the lone goal, with Kovel assisting.